Director Imam Hasanov and Producer Maria Ibrahimova chat to Siren about their inspiring film project, Dreamer, and how you can help support this story.
Content Warning: This article includes mentions of forced marriage and suicide.
Mamed has a dream. He wants to form the first all-girls football team in rural Azerbaijan.
DREAMER, a film by Imam Hasanov and produced by Maria Ibrahimova, is the story of Mamed, a former football player from the remote village of Sheki, who wants to form a female football team.
The film aims to follow Mamed’s journey and show the challenges girls still face in Sheki where rigid gender roles and conservative national traditions remain in place. But as the world still battles a brutal pandemic, the film itself is also on its own journey against severe challenges to deliver this important story to the world.
It is work Iman and Maria are willing, and more than prepared, to do to champion gender equality in Azerbaijan and show how sport really can drive social change, if you give it a chance.
“Sports make such a positive impact on girls [and] women, it’s practically immeasurable. I think team sports in particular are so important for building community, life-long friendships, and just for health and positive body image too,” Maria says.
“It’s very important for me to see this film to the end. I would never have come on board otherwise. I know from my own films that this is an investment of years of my life. And when it’s finished, it’s part of my filmography forever, so I never take these decisions lightly. I very much believe in Imam’s vision, and I’m honoured to go on this journey with him.”
For Imam, the passion for this project also comes from a personal place of wanting to drive change. Imam’s sister was forced into marriage at age fifteen. He’s always felt guilt and regret for not being able to do more for her despite being only ten-years-old at the time.
“I’m making this film asking for forgiveness from my sister and dedicating this film to her, showing it in parallel through the battlefield of moral principles of society and Mamed’s mission [to create this team],” Iman says.
“My personal reason for being involved in this project is directly connecting to the protection of women’s rights. As I witnessed violence in my family, I cannot stay away from the life story of Mamed. Being a filmmaker gave me a chance to capture the perspective of football players from the rural region in Azerbaijan, and to tell the story about pressure from society, old traditions and customs with which Mamed and girls are fighting.
“It is a great honour to take part in this mission and be an example for as many people as possible to change their [perspective] and to live for a healthy and progressive future.”
A project like this, with so much passion and determination to make a change was just what was needed to finally bring these two experienced filmmakers together Maria says.
“I have known Imam for several years… When he came to me and said he had started his new film of course I was very curious to hear more. I think halfway into his pitch, I knew I wanted to be involved. Everything about this story speaks to my values as a human being, a woman, and a filmmaker.”
Imam’s pitch. Mamed. The dreamer himself.
“At the beginning of the shooting process, I met Mamed for the first time and tried to know who is the person that took my attention. I saw a man around 50-60-years-old, who was in sportswear, standing in front of me and starting to smile immediately. His eyes were full of hope and happiness when we were spending time, hours, talking about the problems of creating teams, talking to the parents not to forbid [their daughters] to play football after 15, not to marry their daughters, and not to break their lives.
“But among all of the problems, a very touchable moment was when Mamed talked about two girls from the orphanage, who now are playing in Sheki team, their names are Nahida and Fidan. For a long time, these girls were staying with Mamed and his wife Svetlana, they were carrying them since childhood and not as a coach, of course, as a father.
“Svetlana stands side by side with Mamed and is totally with Mamed. She helps him not only at home but in the stadium and at training, she even washes the girls’ uniforms and cleans their boots.”
While the dream and passion Mamed has to support and empower young women to play football is admirable, there are, many, many obstacles in his way.
“I think Mamed is really pushing a rock up the hill so to speak.” Maria says.
“He has to deal with a very particular brand of conservative mentality. He knows he can’t change it overnight, so I have huge respect for him for even taking up this challenge. It’s a very patriarchal society where whatever the father says goes and there’s no discussion. So I would say the biggest challenge are the male heads of households. But he is chipping away at it bit by bit and finding creative avenues to do so. Of course he never counted on COVID-19 and the ripple effect from that. We have to wait and see what he will come up with next to deal with these consequences.”
While it is a powerfully patriarchal society, of equal importance to Imam is work through the challenge of also changing the relationship daughters have with their mothers.
“We aim for the mothers to see the film first, because this film primarily talks about the problem of the relationship between mother and daughter, and only after about the relationship of “fathers and children.” Putting forward the relevance of suicides by women in Azerbaijan, as an artist and director, I want to express my opinion on this matter, and I believe that men will soon get used to modern standards of life and will also support this sport.”
The challenges are big, there’s no shying away from that. But for Maria, who has been able to see some of the amazing progress Mamed has made such as seeing a new stadium built at the orphanage and some girls selected to play for the national team, it’s proof to her that anything can be achieved if you keep going.
“I’m a big believer in miracles when passion and perseverance are married in one person who is tirelessly pursuing a dream. I couldn’t imagine these specific concrete things, but I just knew that he would make something amazing happen. The moment I saw him for the first time through the lens of Imam I got goosebumps, he has such a positive energy, and light in his eyes, it moved me so.”
Now the challenge comes for the filmmakers to continue to tell Mamed and the girls’ story during a pandemic. COVID-19 has stalled production of the documentary, and progress of Mamed’s dream with sport being difficult to continue.
A Kickstarter campaign was launched to help get the film back on track.
“We are in the middle of our Kickstarter campaign so definitely if someone wants to help the film, even with any small amount, it will be a huge help for us.
“Even if one little girl sees this film and it gives her the courage to play sports, or otherwise follow her heart and do something that falls outside of traditional expectations, I will consider this film a success. As often repeated by the actress and activist Geena Davis “if she can see it, she can be it.” These are very powerful words.
“As far as the general audience is concerned, I want people to think how there are things that they take totally for granted, that for someone, somewhere, is huge. And to never underestimate your own power. You too can change someone’s life by doing something that maybe is really simple and easy and doesn’t cost you anything but a little of your time.
“Think if maybe you can be someone’s Mamed.”
To learn more about Dreamer and help contribute to their funding goal, head to their Kickstarter page.
If this article has triggered anything for you and you need to talk to someone, Lifeline Australia is available 24 hours a day on 13 11 14 and 1800 RESPECT is available for support on issues related to gendered, domestic and family violence call 1800 737 732.